Port Light captures the rich history of the trade, civic, and kin connections that extended across the sounds of North Carolina from the Outer Banks to mainland ports. From the first tenuous Colonial and piloting settlements to the viable fishing villages of the early to mid-twentieth century, boats were the primary mode of transportation, and key to the development of early America.
Captains in wooden boats with canvas sails set out from Shackleford Banks, Core Banks, Portsmouth Island, Ocracoke, and Hatteras Island as a matter of day-to-day routine and outright survival. They braved the ever-changing conditions of Core, Pamlico, and Albemarle Sounds, navigating by star and pocket watch, their sights set on the faint port lights of the mainland.
Boats were the trucks and buses of the day, transferring basic provisions and items of trade. En route to New Bern, Washington, Engelhard, Elizabeth City and other ports, boats delivered whale oil, salted fish, and waterfowl packed in barrels to help keep mainland towns and plantations running. On the return trip, boats brought essentials such as corn for grinding, coffee, flour, nails, lumber, and livestock to banks dwellers.
More than basic provisions were transferred by boat. Mailboat captains shared local news by mouth and other news by mail. Mail and freight boats carried salesmen to hawk newfangled products, teachers to impart smarts to village children, and preachers to deliver salvation. Even new blood was introduced to the local gene pool with incoming “mail boat brides.”
Boats connected water bound people and communities. They held whole families and lone fishermen, midwives and newborns, coffins of the departed, lawmakers and outlaws. Much has been written about the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” the treacherous shoal-ridden trade route off the coast of North Carolina. The Port Light project, funded by the National Maritime Heritage Grant Program, highlights the lifeblood of the sounds, vital routes from the barrier islands to the mainland.